Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A rose by any other name...

…might smell as sweet, but don’t tell me if it was called a skunkbud, you’d be as likely to try smelling it in the first place.

Names are very important, both in real life and in fiction. They are often the first thing you have to react to when you meet someone new. And I doubt anyone has made it through life without at least once thinking, Yikes, when someone else has introduced themselves. I had a friend who used to claim she was going to put a silent "q" in all her future children's names. Just to build their character. 

"Actually it's pronounced Nancy" Long suffering sigh. "The q is silent."

As for fictional characters, take Elizabeth Bennett, for instance. A simple, classic name. Perfect for an Austen heroine, but if Gregory Maguire had chosen it for the main character of Wicked? It probably wouldn’t work. And if everything in the Harry Potter series stayed exactly the same, except that Harry and Draco switched names? I just don’t think the fit would be quite right.

Two different memories spring to mind when I think about how important the choice of a name is.

When my sister was in pre-school, her class did a project where they glued large rocks to felt and then gave the rocks faces. At the end of the day, my mother picked my sister up and the teacher stopped to talk to her about my sister’s creation. It was magnificent, to be sure. How could a rock with a face not be? But what had really struck the teacher was my sister’s chosen name for the creature. Apparently many of the other children were naming their rocks after themselves, but not my sister. She took one look at her rock face and knew that it was meant for bigger and better things. And thus she bequeathed upon him the name of Rainbowland. And it was good.

My next exposure to the importance of naming occurred within a year of this. My parents packed my sister and me in the car, placing some towels between us. We were told that we were going to get a surprise. I was, of course, thrilled, but also a little concerned. You see, the towels had thrown me off. I assumed that the surprise had something to do with a pool. Indoors, naturally, because it was winter and freezing out. This would have been wonderful, except I did not have my bathing suit. So, I was a little worried as to how to handle this swimming extravaganza, but decided to trust that my parents knew what they were doing.

The worrying was unnecessary, as there was no pool involved. This might have been disappointing, if it wasn’t for all the puppies. My parents had taken us to a house where two Dalmatians had just had puppies and, wonder of wonders, my sister and I got to pick one out. To keep.

Best. Surprise. Ever.

We picked the little boy puppy and bundled him up in towels for the car ride home. Once there, my parents set up gates in the kitchen, where the puppy would be kept during the whole housebreaking process. I set up shop in there, with my little notebook, so that I could “do my homework,” while really focusing on the puppy. It was a thrilling time.

Then came the naming process. My sister and I, totally ignoring the fact that we had a boy dog, chose names that any self-respecting girl in our age range would immediately adore. If I remember correctly, Buttercup and Cupcake were two big contenders. Thankfully, at this point, my brother, home from school, stepped in.

Without outright vetoing the names his two Lisa Frank-obsessed sisters had so thoughtfully chosen, he managed to convince us to go in a different direction. And so, our young Dalmatian became Odysseus, of Homeric fame. A moniker that, in the following years, I realized was much, much cooler to tell people. Particularly when the rascal made his way past the gate, over a few blocks and into the open doors of strangers’ houses. As I dragged him out of their living rooms, profusely apologizing, having to call him Buttercup would have just been insult to injury.

Thanks to my siblings, I learned that the right name can provide a mightiness that is just missing with a poor name choice. An understanding that comes in handy whenever I put the pen to the page to start a new story. 

Here's the moral: Names have power. Just ask Rumplestiltskin.

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